Founder / CEO, little oasis group
Arriving in New Zealand from China at the age of 8, Jennifer Ma remembers the experience vividly.
The blue sky, fresh air and the beaches seemingly everywhere was intoxicating for someone who had spent her first eight years amidst very different surroundings.
As first-generation immigrants her parents faced all the usual challenges adapting to a new country, particularly a new language and culture. Almost everything was different.
Within a year of arriving they had established a business manufacturing plastic bags that would soon provide a steady source of after-school and holiday work for Jennifer, teaching her at a young age how to be motivated, how to work hard and how to be kind to people. “It was the best education possible and the experience was a formative part of my childhood. I learnt so much from working at the business and it made me realise from an early age what it takes to be successful.”
Having parents working long hours in the family business also had its advantages. It meant lots of time home alone which Jennifer says also instilled in her a sense of independence.
“A few times I would go running to the neighbours when I got scared and ask them why I was growing up alone but it taught me how to manage myself and become independent; something I try to pass on to my own children today.”
Deciding to do her own research on which secondary school she should be attending, Jennifer settled on St Cuthbert’s College. Soon she was immersed in a school where she quickly excelled, gaining University Entrance in her sixth form year.
It was her German teacher who suggested skipping her final year and instead spending a year as an exchange student in Germany. It was an experience that would prove to be life changing.
“My German teacher was the first person to engage with me as a young adult and in doing so became my first mentor. I trusted her advice and I’m so grateful she encouraged me to do something that really challenged me on so many levels; particularly the cultural dimension.”
Returning to New Zealand and enrolling in a conjoint Bachelor of Law / Commerce, Jennifer says she initially felt she was a year behind the rest of her cohort having skipped her seventh form year. She doubled down on her studies and ended up achieving grades well beyond her expectations. It was obvious she could afford to ease off the accelerator a bit.
Finding part time employment with GE Finance working the phones collecting overdue debts provided an unexpected bonus as well as an attractive hourly rate.
“I was being paid $25 an hour which was very good money for a student at the time. I found I was able to persuade people to pay their arrears, many of which had been overdue for months. It was a good experience learning how to use the art of persuasion to get people to do something they weren’t initially willing to do.”
Following graduation the opportunity to join the international cosmetics giant L’Oréal based in Melbourne would lead to a series of marketing and brand management roles, before a move to London which was soon followed by a decision to relocate with her husband to Beijing.
Having been born in China, Jennifer says it was something of a reverse culture shock after almost 20 years out of the country, but she soon settled into her new life with her young family of three boys, initially unaware they would soon be the catalyst for a whole new business opportunity.
“Once I started looking for quality preschool education I found there was virtually nothing available that met the standard I was wanting. The ones I visited were largely classroom based, rather soulless and in many cases just plain ugly.”
Jennifer realised there was a significant gap in the market for an offering that was more tailored to the needs of a growing middle-class who wanted to be more involved in their children’s early education. That led to the creation of little oasis. It was a leap of faith but one Jennifer says she felt confident in taking.
Five years on the business has expanded rapidly providing a boutique offering for parents wanting a more interactive and engaging experience for their pre-schoolers.
Jennifer says there has also been the opportunity to work with New Zealand suppliers to cross sell a range of products, including snacks and other food items through to educational toys, as part of a separate consultancy business helping New Zealand businesses enter the China market.
“I’m really enjoying this new challenge and excited by all the possibilities that exist for this business. With little oasis I feel I’ve been able to put the joy back into parenting that seemed to be missing previously.”